Shaping Your Manuscript–Beyond Theme

by Doris Booth

Editor-in-Chief, Authorlink


Shape, on the other hand, is the spine that holds the story (and theme) in place.


A good story should have an appealing "shape," an underlying structure that contributes to the finished portrait of the tale. Many unpublished writers miss this basic truth.

David Ebershoff, Publishing Director of the Modern Library at Random House says that many stories he considers for publication are "good," but simply not "good enough" to break into today's competitive market. Sure, bad stories get published for a variety of reasons. But stories that are better than "good" have far greater success.

A well-honed shape lifts a work beyond merely "good." So, what is "shape," and how do you add the dimension to your story?

"Shape" relates to the central theme or message, but it's not one in the same. The underlying theme can usually be stated as a question, and answered through the telling of the story, such as: "Can good triumph over evil?" or "Does crime pay?"

Shape, on the other hand, is the spine that holds the story (and theme) in place. Some editors define plot and shape as equal. But consider the subtle differences. Imagine plot as the individual vertebrae of the story—the distinct decision points; shape as the overall form that leads the reader to a final destination. Shape is the tissue that flows over those plot points, tracing the path of the vertebrae; the twists, and curves, and turns of plot and theme, propelling the reader to the nerve center—the final point of resolution. Without this basic flow, the story wobbles, bone-bare, from one point to the next. Shape shades in the finer meaning of the journey.

Stephen King and Peter Straub know the principle of shape better than almost any other contemporary writers of the day—one reason they're ravenously popular.

Black House, by King and Straub (Random House), provides a good example of the use of shape. The publisher's synopsis first gives us the basic storyline:

Jack Sawyer, a retired Los Angeles homicide detective living in the obscure hamlet of Tamarck, Wisconsin, has a hidden past in a parallel universe called the Territories, where he saved his mother from an agonizing death, and the Territories from cataclysm. He has no memory of his past life except in unexplained waking dreams. Assigned to solve a series of brutal murders, and plagued by messages from the past, he is drawn back to the Territories where he must find the "soul-strength to enter a terrifying house at the end of a deserted tract of forest, there to encounter the obscene and ferocious evils sheltered within."

The "shape" of the story becomes evident in the first paragraph of the novel, the points for which I've marked in bold:

They [Stephen King and Peter Straub] have buried the clues inside the rhythm of the language, and pointed the way to the next page, and the next, and the next.

Chapter 1

RIGHT HERE AND NOW, as an old friend used to say, we are in the fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect vision. Here: about two hundred feet, the height of a gliding eagle, above Wisconsin's far western edge, where the vagaries of the Mississippi River declare a natural border. Now: an early Friday morning in mid-July a few years into both a new century and a new millennium, their way-ward courses so hidden that a blind man has a better chance of seeing what lies ahead than you or I. Right here and now, the hour is just past six A.M., and the sun stands low in the cloudless eastern sky, a confident yellow-white ball advancing as ever for the first time toward the future and leaving in its wake the steadily accumulating past, which darkens as it recedes, making blind men of us all."

From the very first paragraph, we know something exists that Jack cannot see, that he is as vulnerable as a blind man, and if he cannot see this past, it will leave not only him, but others in some sort of sinister darkness. Even the river's boundaries are vague. King and Straub have given the reader intriguing clues to the course (the shape) their tale will take. They have buried the clues inside the rhythm of the language, and pointed the way to the next page, and the next, and the next.

These clues, carefully planted, define the direction and form of the story.


Only after all the related shapes of the puzzle are fitted over the spine do they bring a full realization of theme . . .


Some editors say a story is built on one thing happening after another: this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. But this is not enough. Where "shape" is at work, we have: this happens, leading to this larger happening, relating to this larger happening, and then to the most important happening of all, until, at last, we see the whole picture. Within this series of defining clues lies the underlying theme—restated, illuminated, and relentlessly pushed toward a climax—the central message, the larger whole. Only after all the related shapes of the puzzle are fitted over the spine do they bring a full realization of theme, standing naked in the end.

An author who erects these signposts along the road will likely spellbind the reader.

King and Straub set us up with the shape of the story from the first paragraph, and hold us there by embedding clues to the main theme the whole way. In the first pages, we can't see where we are going, but we know that it's dark and ominous. We're intrigued by the implied question: what is it that Jack can't see, and why will all be blind if he fails?


A moral is essential to every story. It is that part of the message or theme that gives the story a reason for being.


Many writers avoid building a strong theme—buoyed by shape—for fear they'll be accused of moralizing. But, while moralizing delivers a whole tiresome sermon, a moral merely offers a lesson in some universal truth. A moral is essential to every story. It is that part of the message or theme that gives the story a reason for being. Without this element, there is no point in the telling. We tell stories to reveal our own human natures to one another. We "listen" to learn something, or to solve problems or escape our own lives. The reader must be moved or changed in some way, or the story hasn't done its job.

In today's world, many good writers–some published–forget to provide a meaningful message.

One MSNBC book reviewer ever so politely called the lack of purpose in a current bestseller "thematically elusive." It was simply bad writing. The author got published by means of good characters, crisp dialogue, or perhaps relatives in high places. But he is unlikely to sustain an audience over time.

A story barren of a meticulously shaped theme leaves the reader empty and unchanged.

The vast divide between mediocre, good enough, and great is whether the tale lives on in the reader's mind long after the book is closed.

Shape, in part, makes King and Straub unforgettable.


About Doris Booth

Ms. Booth is Editor-in-chief of and Authorlink Press.

Copyright © Doris Booth, 2002

Excerpts from Black House by Stephen King, Peter Straub Copyright 2001 by Stephen King Peter Straub. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.